Dog With Toy in Mouth

Q. My dog gently "mouths" on me and other people whenever he greets someone. He’s friendly but this is annoying. What can I do?

A. Greeting people can be one of the most exciting things a dog does. Unfortunately, the ways in which dogs cope with excitement, such as jumping up, barking or — in your dog's case — mouthing, are often at odds with our ideas of good canine behavior.

Mouthing is when a dog puts his teeth and mouth over a person’s skin while using little or no pressure from his jaw. It’s not to be mistaken for aggressive biting, which is done out of fear or frustration. Although mouthing is most common in puppies, adult dogs may also engage in this behavior in order to release stress or excitement.

In order to stop your dog from mouthing people, it is essential to give him a different go-to greeting behavior that will be equally rewarding. 

Provide a Distraction

One way to help your dog manage the excitement of greeting people is to give him a toy to hold in his mouth; the toy will function as a pacifier and can be an acceptable alternative to gnawing on your guests' hands. Keep a box of toys near the front door and hand one to your dog before he greets a new person. This is one of the easiest ways to stop your dog’s mouthing.  

While a toy is a useful way to redirect your dog’s energy, it’s also important to teach your dog to cope with the excitement of greeting people even when he doesn't have something to put in his mouth. In order to successfully break the mouthing behavior, teach your pet an alternative greeting sequence.   

Recently I had a Golden Retriever named Maggie in class who would mouth her pet parents and people around her whenever she was excited, especially when greeting someone new. We chose three acceptable behaviors that were incompatible with mouthing to train Maggie to do when greeting someone: heel, sit for greeting, and hand targeting.

Teach a New Behavior

To break the mouthing cycle, Maggie was taught to heel at her pet parent’s side as she approached a person. If she began mouthing, her pet parent would freeze in place like a statue and wait for Maggie to stop mouthing before continuing to walk forward; when she heeled without mouthing, she received a treat. In Maggie’s old greeting sequence, she was rewarded for mouthing because she was able to keep walking toward what she ultimately wanted, which was the other person. In her new behavior sequence, she was rewarded for heeling. In a very short time, Maggie stopped mouthing her pet parents as she approached someone on a walk because she was being rewarded for an alternative behavior and mouthing hindered her progress.   

The next step was to teach Maggie to sit when she greeted someone new. We taught Maggie to sit whenever she greeted anyone, whether it was her pet parents at home or people out on walks, and rewarded her with praise and treats for this behavior. Maggie soon learned that only once she sat with her bottom on the floor would she be given attention and occasional treats. 

Since Maggie was an energetic dog and it was hard for her to keep still during the first 60 seconds of meeting someone new, we taught her to hand target, or touch her nose to an outstretched hand. We intermixed sitting for petting with hand targeting so that she could actively flow between both behaviors. Hand targeting was valuable because it allowed her to still touch the person when she greeted, but only with her nose and a closed mouth. Once she had other active behaviors to focus on, Maggie's mouthing decreased and eventually stopped completely.

By replacing your dog’s mouthy greeting behavior with acceptable alternatives and being consistent about only allowing your dog to greet when he doesn’t mouth, you can increase the likelihood that your pet will use appropriate manners when he meets someone new.